The french politician Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, upon seeing a crowd marching through Paris, supposedly once said: “There go my people. I must find out where they’re going so I can lead them.” In the wake of their humiliating defeat in Massachusetts, many Democratic strategists are now embracing the spirit of Ledru-Rollin, urging their party to adopt a more “Main Street” tone in order to survive the mid-term elections this November.
For the left wing, which has always viewed itself as the unappreciated champion of the common man, it is natural to think that the role of populist will come easy: bash some corporations, rail against some monied interests, bemoan the unfairness of free trade, and soon, all those angry tea partiers will be eating out of your hand.
Reality will be cruel to these liberal illusions. For while Democrats are quick to claim that they represent the economic interests of the working class, their recent voting history has done them no favors. The bailout of Wall Street was passed with mostly Republican, not Democratic, dissent. The fiscal stimulus, after failing to bring unemployment down, now seems like only so much business-as-usual Beltway pork. The back room politics of the health care reform — awarding sweetheart deals to powerful unions and recalcitrant states — gives those who received no such special treatment the feeling that they’re the suckers in all of this.
Future issues are just as likely to yield little traction with populists. On climate change, Democrats will face charges that they’re putting trees before working men and women. On immigration, Democrats will draw the ire of blue collar voters who think they’re being replaced. And on financial reform, where Democrats should be enjoying a target-rich political hunting ground, old hands like John McCain are already beating them to the punch, demanding things like a return of Glass-Steagall and railing against banker excesses. On almost any issue, the Democrats are going to find that Republicans have populist cards of their own, and that there is a difference between being pro-union and being pro-labor.
In truth, the health care debate itself is a prime example of how force-fitting populist narratives to liberal economic policies is a recipe for trouble. Democrats couched health care reform in anti-corporate, pro-little guy terms from the very beginning. Rather than waxing academically about information asymmetries and the legitimate economic rationale for insurance mandates, Democrats decided that such honesty was too cerebral for the common voter, and instead they told a simplistic story about the evilness of insurance companies and the plight of the sick and poor.
The nuance between despising private insurance companies and reforming insurance markets turned out to be an important one. Insurance mandates hardly sound like punitive vengeance against evil corporations. In some regards, they can even sound like the opposite: rewarding the supposed misbehavior of corporate giants with millions of captive new customers. This did not go unnoticed by those who bought into the evil insurers theory. As could be expected with anything the President does, the response from Fox News was apoplectic rage, but on MSNBC, where the president should have heard nothing but love for his plan to extend insurance to millions, he instead received indifference and apathy. Scapegoating insurance companies may have made good politics on paper, but in practice it created a conflict in the message and denied Democrats the energy they should have mustered from their own base.
For the sake of good policy, as well as their electoral future, Democrats should not contort themselves into populist positions. Instead, their chances for success next November will be best maximized by taking centrist stances and arguing them with honesty and transparency. Despite the energy imparted by the Tea Party Movement, Republicans are still a party struggling to bridge the distance between their moderate and conservative wings. If Democrats raise issues on which they can find bipartisan support, and argue them in a way that invites left-leaning Republicans to break from the party proper, they will draw a dividing line through the GOP that will force populists to pick sides. As the left-wing base is now painfully learning, nothing defeats an activist spirit like the cynicism that comes through fighting your own kind.
Democrats, rather than trying to find some vein of popular thinking to exploit, should have faith in the proposition that a good idea, honestly argued, will win public support. Embracing centrism now may seem to some on the left like capitulation. But the real capitulation would be to take another sound policy, like insurance mandates, and ruin it through populist whitewashing.